Lisa Phillips on Leading the New New Museum

Lisa Phillips, director of the New Museum of Contemporary Art since 1999, is only the second person to occupy that post in the museum’s 30-year history. Since its founding by Marcia Tucker in 1977, the New Museum has had a unique role in the New York art world, one that takes a different direction this December when the institution opens a splendid new home just south of Houston Street at 235 Bowery. Designed by Tokyo-based architects Sejima + Nishizawa / SANAA, the new building towers over SoHo, Nolita, and the Lower East Side and is likely to transform them all. Phillips took time out to meet us in the rather cramped temporary accommodation in Chelsea that the New Museum has occupied for the past two years, to discuss her plans for the new space.

Lisa, what should we expect from the new New Museum?

We’re staying true to our mission—new art and new ideas—but we will have a far more visible presence. We’ll also have a much-expanded facility, with twice as much gallery space as we’ve had before, twice as much space overall and more public amenities, including a theater and a café. Everything has doubled—even our staff.

Now the New Museum will be a “destination.” How does that feel?

That’s why we did it. We felt we needed to create a place that would visually telegraph the mission of the institution. We wrote a careful program when we launched the competition for the building design six years ago. it embodies the values of the New Museum: it’s open, it’s dynamic, it’s shifting, it still has intimacy, and it’s a great space for art.

In terms of instant recognizability, it’s going to be a Guggenheim Museum for the 21st century.

Well, that wasn’t necessarily what we were after, but we very much wanted the form of the building to increase the visibility of the institution. We also wanted to support a young architect in the same way that we support younger artists or under-recognized artists. We wanted to give someone who wasn’t necessarily a household name here a chance to build their first building in New York. and we intended to do it in a way that was not exorbitantly expensive. that was part of the program, in keeping with the spirit of the New Museum, and the spirit of the Bowery, too.

A lot was made of your decision to move to the Bowery.

For most of our lives, and for the 100 years preceding, it was an eyesore. it was a place that people avoided; they didn’t want to spend time there. But it was always a place that attracted artists—where they could work quietly, a wide street with a lot of light. artists are usually the first to recognize the hidden possibilities and charms of a place.

When we made the decision, there were signs that the East Village was coming back up, and Nolita was already in the process of transformation, but the Bowery was languishing. People considered it a dead zone. That’s changing of course, and it’ll continue to change. What we liked about the site is that it’s at the intersection of several different organic neighborhoods. For an educational institution that’s important.

You don’t see any irony in moving away from your temporary home in Chelsea, which is such a burgeoning art district?

Chelsea is an amazing success story, and i’ve certainly enjoyed being here these last two years. There’s a lot of art to see in a really concentrated area. Maybe too much! But we’ve always been a downtown institution, and we’re committed to remaining so. That’s why we chose the Bowery site. We considered sites all over the city: We could have come to Chelsea, we could have gone to Harlem or Brooklyn, but after 9/11 we reconfirmed our commitment to downtown.

Do you anticipate any tension between being a much more public institution and maintaining your commitment to challenging work?

Our biggest challenge is to resist becoming institutional. the New Museum was founded on the principle of continually reflecting on its institutional nature. it’s part of our mission; it’s part of the ongoing conversation that inflects everything we do. But now it’s time to fly above the radar. Sometimes.

How soon is this going to happen? 

We’re opening on December 1 with an international sculpture exhibition called “Unmonumental.” We’ll also have specially commissioned artists’ projects and the “Museum as Hub” project, which is a global partnership that will fill the whole education floor.

Tell me a little more about the project. The New Museum has always been keen on collaborations; is “Museum as Hub” another example of that?

In the 21st century, collaboration is back, and it has been one of the things that I’ve pushed for since I arrived. It makes a lot of sense to work collaboratively on so many levels: to plan things together, to share resources. We already have a partnership to co-commission works and exhibit them with the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the Hammer in Los Angeles. Now we have this global partnership—around the idea of the museum as a hub—with five institutions from different continents. We’re collaboratively programming exhibition space and a Web site around global cultural issues. It’s been in development for two years and launches in the fall. It’s really exciting. It’s a signature project for a particular way of working on many other things.

This interview comes to ARTINFO from the fall 2007 issue of Museums Magazine, where it was originally published under the title "Leading the New New Museum."